Thanks to PushDustIn and Cart Boy for edits.
The past twelve months have been a watershed for the games industry, and the newest console on the market, the Nintendo Switch, feels like a perfect representation of 2017’s highlights. Since coming out March 3, it’s been getting one fantastic game after another and flying off store shelves, leading a year of truly fantastic works from across the gaming world. Beyond commercial success, it also carries a new ethos of Nintendo’s that has been evolving since Splatoon released in 2015. And that’s an excitement to try wild ideas with abandon, challenging the preconceptions and traditions of both the conservative, century-old toy company and the medium it has come to define. ARMS isn’t just a fighting game, but something close to a “pure” deconstruction of the genre. Snipperclips is an indie game they supported extensively, a sign of the increasing value they see in small developers. And really, it can be seen especially in the Switch’s flagship games, both of which embody this attitude: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.
It’s not hard to notice a familiarity between both games. Since Odyssey’s release in late October, there’s been a noticeable degree of discussion about the two. They’re both family friendly sandbox games released on Switch in 2017. They’re installments of old series from an old company with extensive input from younger team members, straddling the line between nostalgia and innovation. Alongside Pokémon – whose paradigm-shifting sequel came out last year – they’re Nintendo’s two main franchises, with some of the most prevalent iconography in gaming. Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda were instrumental in the development of the medium as a whole in the 1980s, with numerous entries that codified basic tenets of game design. And these most recent installments have become critical and commercial successes, currently competing with each other for year-end gaming awards as they drive so much of Nintendo’s current success. The main reason the Switch started flying off the shelves at the beginning of March is likely due to how rapturous gaming journalism, myself and the rest of Source Gaming included, was of Breath of the Wild, the best launch game in recent memory. Mario and Zelda games garner praise; these two have been met with a deep, intense awe.
This isn’t to say Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey are clones of each other, or that they function in the same way. Aside from their genres (Zelda is an “Action-Adventure” game, Mario a 3D platformer), they’re radically different in tone, storytelling, and direction. On a general level, the former is a more radical work, while the latter feels like a culmination of Mario and Nintendo’s history. But there is an unmistakable connection between the two games. It’s been a long time since a Mario or Zelda game felt so vital, and that they have both come out in the same calendar year is astonishing. The current iterations harken back to some of Nintendo’s most influential games: Breath of the Wild acts as a sort of reimagining of the original The Legend of Zelda from 1986, while Odyssey is open about returning to the more open ended direction of Super Mario 64, one of the defining texts on 3D game design.
But more than anything, what I think connects them is something bigger: an ethos emphasizing exploration, surprise, and from those immersion. For both games, experimentation and discovery are their own rewards, not simply means to an unrelated end. Players and critics have praised Zelda’s incredible openness and nonlinearity, Odyssey’s ability to change its design on the fly and feel as though anything can happen, and both games’ plethora of secrets and emphasis on self-direction. These ideas weren’t added on the side; they were central from the start and drove production every step of the way.
Nintendo describes Breath of the Wild not as an “open world” game, but an “open air” one. It’s only partially marketing copy. The Zelda team looked at en plein air, a subset of impressionism that emphasizes creating art outdoors, with the intent to portray the natural world as immediately and, from that, as “realistically” as possible. The game’s visual style draws from it for reasons both mechanical (it presents details clearly by highlighting what’s most important, like how The Wind Waker used a cartoon style to impart information through caricature) and thematic (the lush world is inviting, obscuring, and distinct from other games). Claude Monet’s faded paints turn into clouded, undetailed objects in the distance, daring you to approach them and uncover the secrets they must hold. The values of the technique can be found beyond visuals, though; the championing of the natural world, the energy, and especially the sense of freedom are all tied to it. Mario Odyssey did not draw from impressionism, and the two development teams had no collaboration, but it’s easy to note a similar ideology. Both emphasize picturesque landscapes filled with features enticing the player to explore, a constant feeling that something is just around the corner. Chances are, something is.
This attitude of openness helps express two of Nintendo’s central tenets: anyone can “pick up and play,” and the height of game design is exploration, of both of a space and a character. Both have an incredible ability to just make sense on a fundamental level, with consistency that instills trust. In Odyssey, it’s the hat: an all-purpose tool used as an attack, platforming aide, and mechanic for “capturing” enemies and upending the gameplay. Instead of dumping dozens of random moves onto Mario, everything orbits around jumping and throwing the hat, which makes advanced moves easy to understand and execute. In Breath of the Wild, it’s the climbing, which redefines how open world space works and allows players to explore the world at its entirety. You can also see it in the variety and reliability of its interweaving systems: wood and grass will catch fire and create an updraft, electricity will course through water and metal, your “Cryosis” ability to form ice pillars can be used on virtually any water surface, and rain and soft ground will muffle your footsteps as you sneak up to an enemy. These games can be tested, because they can be trusted.
These are important when making games in which exploration is its own reward. Both take place in sandboxes; Mario uses a series of them of differing size and depth, and Zelda is a fully-fledged open world game. That’s another example of them returning to the past; the open, obtuse world of the first Zelda was a predecessor of sandbox style design, while Mario 64 was one of the first traditional examples of that design in action. And both understand keenly the appeal of a environment in which players orient themselves and seek out secrets at their own whim. To explore Breath of the Wild’s overgrown Hyrule is to find wonderful pockets of landmarks, unique biomes, bizarre ruins, and shrines filled with puzzles, challenges, and loot; just the act of getting to them is rewarding. It’s all unified by a wonderful design philosophy that built a world whose own architecture obscures and teases rewards and secrets just as much as gameplay, where finding a lost statue or distant island or crystalline mountaintop turns into a wonderful adventure that stays in your mind. Odyssey’s varied Kingdoms, similarly, are meant to both accommodate Mario’s versatile movement and surprise. Its best location, New Donk City, is an urban playground of cramped alleyways and buildings that allow and demand new approaches to platforming. Steam Gardens stacks layers on top of one another, like a Beijing of spooky woods and wrought iron girders. Forgotten Isles combines deadly poison water with precarious mountaineering. Many of these use unique art styles, from “traditional” realism to low-fi polygonal art to Gothic spookiness, specifically to throw Mario into unexpected locales. And both do one of my favorite things in these kinds of exploratory games: puzzles that consist of only a screenshot or drawing, challenging players to engage with the environment to find their secrets.
And the games’ plots are telling. It’s not a coincidence Breath of the Wild takes place in a dystopian world where Link lost a traditional Zelda story, a harsh wilderness whose denizens eke out lives far from the kingdom’s putrefying center. It’s Hyrule upended; architecture and meta references exist in broken, overgrown ruins that peek out of the ground. The fantastic score is sad and contemplative, creating an atmosphere of loss. Similarly, the opening to Odyssey – in which, again, a Nintendo hero loses to his nemesis – notes the danger of relying on the old way of doing things. It’s symbolized by Mario’s cap being torn to shreds in the propellers of Bowser’s airship, only to be replaced by the magical ghost Cappy. There isn’t a distaste for or fear of prior generations, just a recognition that these stories need to change, evolve, and throw away whatever limits rather than empowers them.
I’ve recently been playing Yooka-Laylee, a game that, like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, is a self-professed inheritor to an old text (specifically, to early 3D platformer Banjo-Kazooie, similar to Odyssey and seminal 3D work Super Mario 64). And it suffers a deluge of poor design. It has terribly structured levels, a wild and unfair difficulty curve, incoherent ideas, atrocious mini-games, and an emphasis on choice that only makes it more constrained. The game coats this in a thick layer of nostalgia, with characters openly decrying new ideas and celebrating how things used to be. Relics from the developers’ previous games like glitchy minecart rides and an awful camera are touted out without improvement or even made worse, with borderline unplayable sequences taking exponentially longer to finish than to wear out their welcome. It’s infuriating to read characters mocking modern game design while indulging in some of the worst traits from two decades prior, though it also brings in bad current trends, as well; in one moment it cracks jokes about insipid, restrictive tutorials just as it forces players through one.
Yooka-Laylee was meant just for (comparative; I’m close to 27) old hats like me, but beyond the obvious catering to nostalgia, it’s understandable why we’d look back when the worst examples of modern games pop up in Mass Effect: Andromeda or Star Wars Battlefront II. The fetch quests, lengthy tutorials, feature bloat, excess of stuff drawing attention from the core of the experience, cheap multiplayer modes, microtransactions, and monotony amongst many of the industry’s biggest projects can be dispiriting and depressing, though it’s easy to ignore the diversity and wealth of quality the industry has been able to produce as of late. But we can’t pretend that things haven’t changed, especially in a medium where the times change quickly, and attempts to “go back to our roots” can’t just run on nostalgia. The best of these nostalgic games in recent years – Resident Evil 7, DOOM 2016, Shovel Knight – aren’t really old games at heart; they just understand how to make old approaches and new work together, taking not only each one’s best ideas but the best parts of their outlooks as well.
And these two Nintendo games are at the absolute forefront of that attitude. For all that this year’s Zelda and Mario entries claim to be triumphs of old design over new, they’re entirely new, just with as much of an eye to the past as they are about innovating and challenging our expectations. Both have amenities of modern design (fast travel, waypoints, in-game manuals, generous auto-saving, percentages for completion), and admittedly, neither are able to perfectly sidestep contemporary bloat. Many Breath of the Wild side quests boil down to fetch quests, and a large number of Odyssey’s collectable Moons feel slapdash, with the game having some but not enough great platforming challenges. The tighter design of Nintendo games isn’t there as much, and while that’s for the benefit of experimentation and less skilled players, it is a loss. Though both deserve commendation for deemphasizing 100% completion (rewards for completionist tendencies taps out after a while), making harder challenges things to actively seek out, and developing worlds and mechanics in which self-direction is more compelling than following a set path. The excess is there, but the gameplay and environments are so wonderful and compelling that finding out what doesn’t work can be almost as fun as exploring what does.
And both games are great with how focused they are on limiting, or in some cases entirely discarding modern tropes that aren’t needed. Waypoints – markers to tell players where to go for each quest – are barely used in Zelda; while they are helpfully there for less experienced players in the main path, ones for side quests only send you to the person who gave them and demand you interact with the world. Odyssey doesn’t go as far, with post-credits Moons listed on the maps, but those are bonus challenges of mechanical mastery over solving environmental puzzles. Both eschew multiplayer (a common concession big budget games make as both a selling point and a way to keep money rolling in via DLC and microtransactions) beyond a minor thing in Odyssey that allows a friend to control Mario’s hat. The only crafting system, a ubiquitous feature in games like Fallout 4, in either is the cooking in Zelda, which works by making the process experimental and intuitive; all you have to do is throw things together to get something. They have a variety of unique mechanics and mini-games, but unlike the ones from Assassin’s Creed that get instantly forgotten, the gameplay, themes, and values of both games keep them focused. Likely the most important value is how open they are, especially Zelda which is nonlinear to a degree where most games of its genre would balk at the notion. Common features are used with intelligence and consideration, not for their own sake. And that’s true of baggage from their own series; the games happily excise unneeded staples like a lives system in the Mario series or a strict critical path most Zelda games use.
A number of things big and small connect these games. There’s the encouragement for players to engage with the environment before checking a waypoint, and to look for details in the oddest places. There are the massive number of collectibles that range from grand challenges to simple environmental interaction. There’s the wild abandon, exuberance, and sincerity that have defined the best games of 2017. You can see that latter value in how both games’ worlds can be tough to navigate but are filled with beauty, boons, and a deep humanity. Breath of the Wild’s characters may be living in a post-apocalyptic kingdom, but they’re not myopic or weak or hateful; they simply go on with their lives. Similarly, the NPCs of Odyssey are friendly to a man, only furthering the game’s theme of befriending strangers from far-off lands. Two minor NPCs – a lonely man in New Donk City who just wants a friend, and a Hylian bridge guard who worries Link is on the verge of suicide – represent the odd but sweet mixture of detail and kindness both games value. But ultimately it’s the sense of discovery that is, I think, at the heart of the “open air” vision the Zelda team had with Breath of the Wild, one Mario Odyssey serendipitously uses in its own way. It’s a belief that a game’s most powerful and affecting moments must come from gameplay. It’s a comfort in letting go of the player’s hand and being happy for them to tell their own stories. And more than anything else, it’s about going into a new and incredible world, one built on exploration, experimentation, and the thrill of the unknown. That is what Nintendo spent this year chasing, and it led to some of the best work they have made in a long time.